College basketball season officially ended Monday night, and the way-too-early preseason basketball rankings are already starting to come out. Coming off a run to the Elite Eight in the 2016-17 season, Florida is highly regarded in most of those polls.
While it is nice for the program to finally get a little recognition, a poll in early April means next to nothing. Mike White, who is headed into his third year at the helm of the Florida Gators basketball program, could not care less what anyone thinks they know about a season that is seven months away.
“First off, I would wait and see what Devin [Robinson] and John [Egbunu] are going to do,” said White. “Those are two pretty big factors right there. So-and-so has got us fifth. So-and-so has got us seventh. If they know that John and Devin aren’t coming back, all of a sudden, do we drop to 35th? I don’t know and I don’t really care. I do think we could be good and potentially have another really good year, but know there is a lot of improvement to make throughout the roster. Individually, each guy can get better in certain areas.”
Both Robinson and Egbunu are expected to test the NBA waters and make a final decision from there depending on the feedback they receive.
Egbunu started 19 games at center for the Gators before going down with a torn ACL during SEC play. He averaged 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds to go along with 36 blocks this season. The redshirt junior will graduate this May, so he would have to apply for graduate school to be eligible to return.
“John hasn’t made a decision yet, but I think he’ll probably test the waters and see what type of feedback he gets,” White said. “I don’t want to speak for John. I’ll let him have his turn doing that, but I think ultimately that’s probably what he ends up doing and we’ll support him however we’ve gotta support him. We want the best for John. If John really, really wants to come back then we’ll welcome him with open arms.”
Moving along to Robinson, the odds for a return get even slimmer. The junior forward was on his way out after last season before suffering a stress fracture in his foot. He averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game this season. White praised Robinson throughout the season as being the most improved defensive player on the team.
Robinson helped his case even more as he shined with a combined 38 points and 18 rebounds in Florida’s first two NCAA Tournament wins. While Robinson was great when he was on, he often disappeared at pivotal times this season. Another year could be in his best interest, but it is a long shot.
“I would be somewhat surprised,” White said on Robinson returning. “I’d be excited. I think that Devin, with this being his second go-around pursuing this thing, I think that it may be difficult for him to not follow through this year, but we’ll find out soon enough. Of course, we want for Devin what Devin wants for Devin and we’re gonna support him anyway we can. Obviously, a big recruiting coup this spring would be if Devin re-committed to being a Gator.”
Assuming those two are gone, the road to a similar or better season becomes a lot more difficult but is not impossible. Florida loses several key players who contributed to this season’s success, but will also return a few key players and have some guys stepping into bigger roles.
White focused on three players in particular who will need to step their games up the most for the team to be successful. He first talked about guards KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza.
“KeVaughn in his first two years, especially with this year’s amount of depth, we’ve been able to get away with every four or five games him having a sub-par game, and he’s going to shoulder a lot more burden,” said White. “He shouldn’t feel pressure from that, he should feel excitement from that. That’s what he wants. That’s what I the would hope he wants. I want him to embrace the fact we need him to play well every night. “
“Same with Chris Chiozza,” he said. “Chris Chiozza cannot be a guy that plays like a starter two games in a row, and then plays like, ‘Oh my goodness, thank god Kasey played really well because it wasn’t Chris’ best game’. We want to continue to add depth and we need to develop our depth, but those guys are going to have big expectations on them offensively, defensively, from a leadership standpoint, communication standpoint, from a leading-by-example standpoint.”
Several players such as Gorjok Gak, Eric Hester, and Keith Stone should make a considerable jump in minutes next season, but White pointed to Stone as the biggest factor of the younger guys who will need to grow up fast.
While Stone didn’t always get opportunities this season with the amount of depth Florida had on the roster, he will be called on a lot more in his redshirt sophomore season.
“The same conversation about Cheese and KeVaughn, even to a further extent in that Keith Stone is going to be depended upon at a much higher level than he was this year, much higher,” White said. “And that’s what he should he want. With the departure of [Justin] Leon and [Canyon] Barry and who knows what happens with Devin, Keith Stone’s got to make a big jump this offseason. I’m glad we saw glimpses of it. I wish we had seen even more glimpses of it because we’re going to need to see a bunch of glimpses next season.”
The Gators will also add a few names in Virginia Tech transfer guard Jalen Hudson along with incoming freshmen Isaiah Stokes, DeAundrae Ballard and Chase Johnson.
While Stokes is arguably the most exciting addition of the freshmen, White is unsure of how much impact, if any impact at all, he will make in his first season as he will come in still rehabbing from a torn ACL.
At this point, White is mostly looking forward to the impacts Ballard and Johnson could have. He even made a bold comparison with Ballard to South Carolina’s 2016-17 SEC Player of the Year.
“I’m going to throw a name at you,” he said. “I shouldn’t do it, but I can’t help myself. He reminds me of this guy because of his intangibles, because of his motor and because of his frame and dimensions, in terms of what he could be. He’s so far away from this guy, of course. You can see a little bit of Sindarius Thornwell in him. Some Thornwell in that he can drive it, he can shoot it, he can pass it, he can defend, he can do a lot of things pretty well, doesn’t hang his hat on one thing”
It will be interesting to see how Hudson fits into the puzzle in his first season of eligibility with Florida. White said he will be one of the best offensive players on the roster, along with Allen. With White’s defensive minded approach, Hudson’s playing time will depend on how much he develops defensively.
For White and the Gators, there is no time to reflect on the successes, and the shortcomings, of this season. From the night of the Elite Eight loss to South Carolina, all focuses were shifted to building a strong team for next season.
“We were very fortunate to get to the Elite Eight,” said White. “We were this close to the Final Four, but we were also this close to maybe being one round and out. East Tennessee State, a couple bounces here and there. Who knows? A couple shots don’t go in early in early second half. Who knows? And then we’re not having the same conversation. I just think there’s such a fine line in all of it. It’s exciting. We’ve got something to build upon. No time for rest. Let’s all get better. Let’s see where it leads, see if we can get back, see how quickly it takes for us to get back.”